Farm and Forest
Local Hog Farmer
Local Hog Farmer Steve Young
Steve started in 1973 with 200 hogs. For Ozark County, this was a large or middle-sized farm. Today you either have a large farm or you have a "hobby farm." A "hobby farm" is on top of your regular non-farm job. With a large operation, you can probably make money. To do that you need to invest and borrow a lot of money. You also need to farm closer to a packer and feed supplies than Ozark County.
When Steve began there was a 4-year cycle in hog prices. Prices would move up and down from $30-$60 per hundred weight over those four years. Some years he would lose money, some he would make money. Overall the operation was profitable. That changed in 1998, when prices dropped to $8 per hundred weight. Costs remained high, so there was no way to make money.
This happened because packers consolidated. They closed down less profitable operations, and expanded them at the few remaining locations. It cost more to transport hogs to a far-away packer. Steve used to get bids from three or four packers. Now there would be just one for a region. So costs went up and without competition, prices went down.
Steve saw that he would have to use financial tools to figure his way out. He saw that farmers today have to be business people first, and food producers second. He studied the question carefully. His decision:
He has three main selling points: Buying a whole pig saves money, there are no growth hormones or antibiotics in his pigs, and they taste better. His pigs are not "organic" because he can't buy organic feed at affordable prices.
Steve keeps his herd at 200 adult hogs, which he feels keeps it a balanced system. He uses traditional breeds, and he breeds them for heterosis -- the vigor that cross-breeding creates -- by rotating the boars every cycle.
To keep a regular flow of pigs moving to market he farrows (breeds) 12 sows every 4th week. 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days later each of them bears a litter of on average 8.5 sucklings. (The sows average 2.3 litters each per year.) Over the course of year the farm produces about 2000 hogs.
Feeding and "Efficiency"
Steve feeds different mixtures of rations at different stages of growth. For example, young pigs need more protein than older ones. He buys tractor trailer loads of corn from northern Missouri and milo from eastern Kansas. These are the pigs' main energy source. He feeds soybeans for protein. Custom mixed vitamins and minerals and also calcium get added to the feed.
The pork in supermarkets comes from raising an extra-"efficient" patented breed of piglet, "Efficiency" refers to how much feed it takes to put on a pound of meat. The more efficient, the leaner the meat. Supermarket meat is very lean, but meat needs fat to taste good. Traditional breeds also just plain have more flavor. Steve works for an efficiency of 3.5 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of meat. Supermarket pork is raised at an efficiency as high as 2.4 pounds of grain to 1 pound of meat.
Steve reasons that a healthy herd in a proper environment won't get sick. That's why he cut his herd in half. Crowding makes animals sick. He also keeps a "closed herd." He keeps it away from anything that can infect pigs. This includes casual visitors. Humans and pigs can trade viruses and bacteria, and he doesn't want his pigs getting your flu! He will pull a sick pig and treat it with antibiotics. But he sells it to a regular packer, not an individual customer.
Paying close attention to the feed affects the manure, which will be less rich if the pigs are fed just what they need. Fed too much, and they will excrete high concentrations of phosphorous. The manure goes first to a lagoon. Then it's sprayed onto hayfields, which absorb the manure. He gets two cuttings a year, which he sells.
Steve is now an independent financial planner serving local people and local needs. Cutting back his herd by half made it possible for him to cut down on the workload. That gave him time to plan a new career and get trained for it. He works an average of 4 hours a day 5 days a week. A responsible helper works full-time; he's off on Sundays and Steve takes his place.
Text and photos by Peter Callaway.